The Morality Vs Power: Oroonoko Representation
Humans have wrestled with power and morality throughout time, recognizing that the issue is much more elaborate than simply deciding good from evil. Aphra Behn’s narrative Oroonoko: the Royal Slave focuses on the relationship between those in power and those in submission, allowing the reader to decipher what motivates the Europeans to continue the cycle of slavery, no matter how horrific the institution. Because of Oroonoko’s contradictory status as a royal slave, a morally ambiguous conflict arises between the oppressor and the oppressed. The complex social hierarchy implemented by the Europeans creates tension throughout Oroonoko, bringing a focus to the internal struggles of balancing power and morality— especially in the lives of Trefry and Aphra Behn.
From the onset of the narrative, Trefry walks a thin line between respecting and oppressing Oroonoko. Upon meeting Oroonoko, Trefry quickly notices his intelligence, befriending Oroonoko and “loving him as his dearest brother and showing him all the civilities due so a great man” (2157). Trefry looks past Oroonoko’s difference in skin color and focuses on the content of his character, and by doing so, Trefry soon learns of Oroonoko’s many plights. By putting his dominance aside, Trefry is able to focus on equalizing Oroonoko instead of alienating him, and in his desperation to help Oroonoko, Trefry promises to reunite Oroonoko with his family. However, Trefry cannot possibly keep his word to Oroonoko without great repercussions, and although Trefry quickly becomes friends with Oroonoko, he never relinquishes his dominant role. For example, Trefry renames Oroonoko, which is a common practice for new slaves, proving Oroonoko’s royal status does not absolve him of his fate (2158). By giving Oroonoko the name Caesar, Trefry not only rids Oroonoko of his royal name, he strips away Oroonoko’s personal identity. Moreover, the name Caesar itself foreshadows the great betrayal Trefry will deal Oroonoko. Trefry’s inner indecisiveness tears him in two: one part of him knows Oroonoko deserves freedom, and the other reminds Trefry of his allegiance to the very system keeping Oroonoko captive. Soon, Oroonoko grows weary of waiting for Trefry to fulfill his promise of freedom. Trefry’s inability to act upon his word pushes Oroonoko over the edge, resulting in Oroonoko’s rebellion, subsequent torture, and death. As Oroonoko is ripped apart piece by piece, Trefry is unable to intervene (2178). The rigid socioeconomic structure of his culture renders Trefry impotent in the situation, and although he knows Oroonoko deserves freedom, he cannot possibly grant the liberation of one slave family while the rest suffer. Despite his power, if Trefry set Oroonoko free, he would carry the burden of arbitrating which slaves deserve freedom and which must remain in captivity. Trefry must sacrifice his relationship with Oroonoko in order to maintain order within his complex social system. Ergo, Trefry is culpable, but not solely responsible for Oroonoko’s death.
Just as Trefry depicts the difficult position of a slave master grappling with morality and power, Aphra Behn provides a more multifaceted view on the precarious role of upper class women. When Behn first encounters Oroonoko, she immediately notices his regal appearance and intellect. Behn notes, “the most illustrious courts could not have produced a braver man, both for greatness of courage and mind,” thus giving the reader a deeper perception of the humanity possessed by Oroonoko (2140). Although at times Behn’s description of Oroonoko objectifies his looks with the European standard of beauty, she goes much further to humanize a black man than many other writers of her time. Furthermore, instead of demeaning Oroonoko, and writing him off simply as a man meant to become a slave based on the color of his skin, Behn outlines Oroonoko’s intelligence and sparkling personality, which accompany his regal stature. Although Behn acknowledges Oroonoko’s difference from the other slaves, she still domineers over Oroonoko by attempting to push her ideals upon him. For example, Behn tells Oroonoko Christian stories, thus imposing her Western culture and belief system upon Oroonoko. When Oroonoko refuses to listen to Behn’s religious stories, Behn simply recites them to Oroonoko’s wife, Imoinda. Behn only follows Oroonoko’s wishes to a certain extent, and relays her beliefs to Imoinda, who has less power and cannot refuse Behn. Although Behn acknowledges Oroonoko as a man greater than the rest of the slaves, she does not fully accept his ideals and beliefs. As Oroonoko faces grave danger and is no longer certain of his promised freedom, Behn is unable to help him, not because of her lack of willingness, but because she is unable to alter his fate. In Behn’s case, her race does not directly grant her power; she is still a woman, thus Behn is still submissive to European men. Aphra Behn utilizes her writing capabilities to keep Oroonoko’s story alive because she cannot save his life. Behn’s unique ability to relate with both the oppressed and the oppressor allows her to understand Oroonoko’s inability to fight for equality, while she receives attention and praise for capturing Oroonoko’s story.
Oroonoko: the Royal Slave reveals that those in power recognize that slavery is morally flawed, but look past their consciences and submit to the system. This passiveness demonstrates power can corrupt even the innocent, causing them to become bystanders, rather than the activists they yearn to be. Trefry and Behn struggle to strike a balance between freedom and restraint within their society. Ultimately, the inability for justice to trump power reveals that the European society is deeply flawed. Oroonoko proves to be the only man living up to his ideals, accepting death because he is not granted liberty. Those in power are not always what they seem, and often are slaves themselves, puppets of a broken system.
Oroonoko Character as the Royalty Allegory
Aphra Behn was born in the midst of the English Civil War and by the time of her death in 1689, she had seen Charles I executed by his own parliament, the overthrow and restoration of the monarchy with Charles II, and finally the deposition and replacing of James II on religious grounds. The only cultural context that Behn ever knew was one marked by major cultural and political turmoil which pitted the Royalist conservatives (Tories) against the Parliamentarian liberals (Whigs). In such a political climate, it is only natural that the artistic and literary output of this time period is marked by a sense of agitation about the English state of affairs, and Behn’s 1688 novella Oroonoko is a blatant example of this. In summary, Oroonoko recounts the tale of an idealized and highly romanticized African prince who is sold into slavery by his grandfather (the king) and is taken to the Dutch colony of Suriname by way of the Middle Passage, where he eventually leads a slave revolt, performs a mercy killing upon his wife, and is eventually executed. Operating as a reactionary response to the political turmoil of this time, Oroonoko is an allegorical narrative that asserts the divine right and honor of kings, a sentiment which echoes Behn’s own Royalist political leanings. While Behn’s work is known for its major contribution to the development of the novel, it is also a text that is highly conditioned by the culture of political anxiety in which it was written.
In order to fully comprehend the allegorical aspects of the novel, it is necessary to examine the significance of “royalty” and “royal blood” in 17th century England. The monarchs of England (as well as many other Western societies) are notable in that their authority was considered a grant from God, which would indicate that divinity was present within the actual person of the monarch and their lineage. Anita Pacheco writes about the conceptual basis of hierarchy, saying that, “. . . through the mysteries of blood, virtue is supposedly transmitted from one generation of the ruling class to the next, so that power is legitimated on the grounds of worthiness, authority presented as hereditary and innate. . .” (494). In other words, the circumstances of a royal’s birth are crucial because by being born in that position, they are said to be naturally granted the idealized virtues and elevated status of divine authority. These notions were central in Royalist ideology and are even more critical considering the context of the time, which saw Parliamentarians seeking to overthrow what they believed was the authority of God, which was made manifest in the person of the monarch. The nature of Royalist belief is critical to understanding the political climate of the time, which was marked by mutual anxiety and violent conflict between two parties who supported radically different notions of government. Written about a royal prince whose authority and honor is challenged by corrupt officials, Oroonoko is a text that is clearly shaped by the political climate of the time, allowing it to operate as an allegorical novel about the divine authority of royalty and the corrupt nature of those who attempt to remove them of their power.
From the onset of the novel, Oroonoko is characterized with the highly admirable characteristics which Behn deliberately implies to be the result of his royal status. When he is introduced, the narrator notes that he has, “. . . that real greatness of soul, those refined notions of true honor, that absolute generosity, and that softness that was capable of the highest passions of love and gallantry . . .” (79-80). While this conveys the reverence the narrator (or Behn herself) holds for this man of royal birth, Oroonoko is also shown to stand out amongst others, almost as though he is inherently different them by virtue of his birth. This is manifested even in his physical appearance, where it is said that, “. . . he was adorned with a native beauty, so transcending all those of his gloomy race that he struck an awe and reverence even into those that knew not his quality . . .” (79). Oroonoko’s character is established in such a way that even his humanity seems negligible, since he is clearly being portrayed as someone who appears as God-like to others. What is significant about Behn’s writing here is that it paints a picture of royalty in the way that she sees it to be: divine, without fault, and untouchable. Oroonoko’s perfections are so, according to Behn, because those qualities are afforded to those of royal birth, who are models of God’s perfection and are thus bestowed upon to maintain authority on earth. Therefore, the Godly presence of Oroonoko is intended to represent the nature of all royals, who are too bestowed with the perfect virtue of kings and are too exalted among men.
Behn continues the narrative with subtler but nonetheless poignant illustrations of the prince’s naturally elevated status. Oroonoko is tricked into slavery by being guided (along with his people) onto the ship of a slaver, whose corrupt Captain had previously befriended the prince only to betray him. What is notable is that the Captain is shown to be a villain less because of his occupation, but more so because (as Oroonoko tells him) of the fact that he betrays his honor by kidnapping a man of the prince’s status (104). While Pacheco argues that this instance shows the prince separating his sense of morality from that of Christians, I would instead suggest that this moment is meant instead to distinguish the elevated position of Oroonoko from that of others, including both his people and the Captain. Oroonoko himself is a slave trader and has never had any objections to the practice on moral or honorable grounds; it is only when he himself is taken as a slave that the practice of enslavement becomes a dishonorable practice in his eyes. In this light, it can be interpreted that Behn wants the audience to understand Oroonoko as a person who (at one point) had the right to act however he wished, regardless of honor, simply by virtue of his position of royalty. In this way, Behn once more seeks to separate the hero of this story from the other characters on the basis of his eminent and divine status.
Another key aspect of Oroonoko is that it deals with the problem of having corrupt individuals in powerful positions, something which is meant to mirror Behn’s abhorrence of the eventually victorious Whig party. The condemnations of such officials appear throughout the latter half of the story, exemplified by the description of Deputy Governor Byam as, “. . . a fellow whose character is not fit to be mentioned with the worst of the slaves” (128). In this statement, Behn seeks to discredit the ideologies and actions of the authoritative individual (Byam) by aligning his character with those considered the dregs of society. Though Byam is not based on any specific historical figure, nor is he meant to represent a specific individual, Byam and his forces are meant to represent an authority that is both criminal and unlawfully in power. In an instance of more generalized criticism, Oroonoko puts forth a poignant denunciation of his captors, saying, “. . . there was no faith in the white men, or the gods they adored; who instructed them in principles so false that honest men could not live amongst them . . .” (130). While one can assign this quote as evidence of anti-colonialist fervor or even abolitionist sentiment, I propose that this statement be read can be read as a general vilification of those who were granted power by corrupted means, which is the case with the power dynamics in Oroonoko. In this context, this statement can be read as evidence of Behn’s attempts to deliberately discredit the authority of the Whig party, whom she believes also seized power and wielded it unjustly. The way in which Behn deals with the problem of corrupted authority is indicative that Oroonoko is meant to be read as a condemnation of those whose power is questionable, especially in comparison to those whose power she considers entirely indisputable.
Oroonoko has been analyzed on a number of different critical platforms, most of which analyze the novel’s depiction of slavery, and while there are fewer detailed attempts to align the work with the political climate of the era, it is generally agreed upon that it is an allegorical work born of Behn’s conservative Tory ideology (Pacheco 491). Oroonoko must be understood as a work that was quite literally borne out of the time it was created in, rather than any specific interest in African society or the question of slavery. Because Behn was so influenced by her political beliefs, it is perhaps most accurate to conclude that her text was written out of these specific sentiments before any obscure beliefs about colonialism or racial superiority. Throughout all of the scholarly analyses of the novel, it always remains that Behn was living and writing during an extremely unpredictable, uniquely violent, and innately explosive time within English history, the nature of which clearly translated into her writings. Despite the fact that female writers were most often writing for the sake of making a living, the texts that have survived from their efforts have undoubtedly been altered and influenced by the climate of the era. Furthermore, while women may have been “cut off” from participation in politics and other realms of society, works like Oroonoko show how women like Behn were nonetheless affected by the turbulence of their respective eras. Most importantly, such works stand out within the British literary canon because they represent the desires of their female authors to assert their voices within the political, social, and cultural climates of the day. Just as Aphra Behn made her voice heard with Oroonoko by communicating her political sentiments, the generations of women that followed her would prove that writing was an effective means of revealing the nature of the societies they lived in as well as state their beliefs about that nature.
Pacheco, Anita. “Royalism and Honor in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900. 34.3 (1994) 491-506. JSTOR. Web. 14 April 2016.
Behn, Aphra. Oroonoko, The Rover, and Other Works. London: Penguin Books, 1992. Print.
Are We to Trust Narrator: The Problem of Reliability
Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe leaves home to see the world, only to find himself in a shipwreck, leaving him stranded on a deserted island for years, while Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko is a royal prince turned slave who meets his ultimate demise in the African country of Surinam. Both Defoe and Behn employ similar techniques of first-person narration in their respective stories, and while this position is advantageous to each narrator’s status within their texts, the reliability of each narrator differs significantly.
Behn’s narrator’s absence from the majority of the events she depicts serves to seriously discredit her narrative reliability. Though the female narrator claims to “have often seen and conversed with [Oroonoko], and been a witness to many of his mighty actions” (2140), it is the detailed accounts she provides the reader of “what [she] could not be witness of” that becomes increasingly problematic. Aside from the events that she personally witnesses, Behn’s narrator is only able to convey a second-hand account that she receives “from the mouth of the chief actor in this history, the hero himself, who gave us the whole transactions of his youth” (2137). At one point, when speaking of Oroonoko and Imoinda blushing upon seeing each other, the narrator, though not in attendance for this particular event, speculates that “’tis certain that both these changes were evident, this day, in both these lovers” (2145). Again, while she neither personally witnesses these events nor gives any mention of speaking directly to anyone other than Oroonoko himself, the narrator is quick to stray from a viewpoint of objectivity and form assumptions of other characters’ beliefs and emotions: When the King reflects on his decision to enslave both Imoinda and Oroonoko the narrator explains that “he believed he had made a very great conquest over himself when he had once resolved, and had performed what he resolved. He believed now that his love had been unjust” (2150). We can see the narrator’s presumptions of Imoinda’s emotions again despite her fleeting presence when she explains that when “the Prince softly wakened Imoinda, who was not a little surprised with joy to find him there, she trembled with a thousand fears” (2149). Because of her absence for many of the critical events in the story, the secondary nature of her conveyance of information, and her inability to remain objective, Behn’s female narrator is fallible.
Though Robinson Crusoe recalls his story almost entirely from memory, it is through his ability to reflect on his past adventures retrospectively in which he achieves reliability as a narrator. Robinson Crusoe often reveals to the reader what he remembers his thoughts to be at the time of each particular memory or situation, compared to what they are now in retrospect. When reflecting on his choice to defy his father’s wishes and go to sea, Robinson Crusoe explains that “had [he] now had the sense to have gone back to Hull, and have gone home, [he] would have been happy” (14), remembering that he “used to look upon [his] condition with the utmost regret” (32). Reminiscing of his first journey at sea, Robinson Crusoe admits that “it was [his] great misfortune that in all these adventures [he] did not ship [him]self as a sailor” (16), recalling what a “loose and unguided fellow [he] then was” (16). In addition to these reflections, Crusoe does not conceal from the reader when he is uncertain of the exact details of his story; after escaping captivity from his master by stealing his fishing boat, Robinson Crusoe explains that in his ploy to make it to the coast, he “came to an anchor in the mouth of a little river” in which he “knew not what, or where; neither what latitude, what country, what nations, or what river” (22). When reflecting upon his ability to grow various types of food on the island, Crusoe explains that he “had near two bushels of rice, and above two bushels and half of barley, that is to say, by my guess, for I had no measure at that time” (100). Of his first months on the island, Crusoe reflects that he “[did] not remember that [he] had in all that time one thought that so much as tended either to looking upwards toward God, or inwards towards a reflection upon [his] own ways” (76), explaining that he “was merely thoughtless of a God, or a Providence; acted like a mere brute from the principles of nature” (76). Unlike Behn’s female narrator, Robinson Crusoe achieves reliability as a narrator through his tendencies to reflect and provide the reader with comments on his past in retrospect, while also admitting his uncertainty of specific details.
Though Behn’s and Defoe’s narrators differ significantly regarding their credibility in the relation of their respective texts, both Robinson Crusoe and Behn’s female narrator’s positions as narrators allow them to manipulate their position within the novel in a light that is advantageous to them in that it comments on their social status and power. Behn’s female narrator establishes a higher social status than that of many of the other characters in the novel when she tells the reader that “[her] stay was to be short in that country, because [her] father died at sea, and never arrived to possess the honor was designed him (which was lieutenant-general of six and thirty islands, besides the continent of Surinam)” (2162), adding that “as soon as [she] came into the country, the best house in it was presented [to her]” (2163). The way in which the narrator portrays her apparently tight-knit relationship with the story’s protagonist, Oroonoko, is also significant in that it illuminates the power she is able to exercise over the text in order to cast herself in a positive light; the narrator reveals that Oroonoko “had an entire confidence” in her (2162), while mysteriously disappearing during every instance of Oroonoko’s “ill treatment” (2173). Like Behn’s female narrator, Robinson Crusoe, too, immediately makes known to the reader that “[he] was born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family” (5). Of his position on the island, Crusoe regards himself as “lord of the whole mannor; or if [he] pleased, [he] might call [himself] King, or emperor over the whole country which [he] had possession of” (109), additionally indicating in a journal entry that the sixth of November meant it was “the sixth year of [his] reign” (117) of his “castle” (131) or “enterprise” (160). Lastly, Robinson Crusoe’s first meeting with Friday is highly indicative of the power he believes he possesses on the island: “I made him know his name should be Friday, which was the day I saved his life. I likewise taught him to say Master, and then let him know, that was to be my name” (174). While Behn’s female narrator and Robinson Crusoe differ in the credibility of their respective narratives, their position as a first-person narrator is significant to each text in that it allows each narrator to position themselves in a positive light.
While Behn’s female narrator lacks credibility due to her absence in the majority of the events she depicts, as well as her failure to remain an objective third-party narrator, Robinson Crusoe achieves narrative reliability through his ability to reflect back on his past retrospectively. Both Behn’s narrator and Robinson Crusoe’s role as first-person narrators is significant in that it allows each narrator a certain authority over their texts in which they can manipulate their social status or position themselves to appear in a positive light in comparison with other characters in their novels.
Behn, Aphra. “Oroonoko.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 4th ed. Ed. David Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar. New York: Pearson Education, 2010. 2137-2178. Print.
Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. 2008. Ed. Thomas Keymer. New York: Oxford University Press. Print.
The Implications of Oroonoko
Oroonoko was a ground-breaking and revolutionary novella that depicted its African hero in a dignified, even regal, light and is considered to be one of the first works during this time era that showed a compassionate side towards Africans. It is also deemed historically valuable for its being written by a woman, Aphra Behn, a feat to be marveled at, since women were not often well-educated at the time of publication, as well as the simple fact that this was one of the first English novels to be written. Oroonoko showcases the plight of the Africans and the struggles that they faced with the Europeans by using the theme of the moral question of slavery, as well as that of cultural adaptations. These themes culminated to present a short but concise book that influenced the conventional world and quite conceivably served as a precursor to the abolitionist movement. Aphra Behn wrote Oroonoko for a number of reasons. She wrote because she was poor and needed money; she wrote to become a recognized author and because she liked writing; she wrote to illustrate the misery of slavery; she wrote to tell the story of a person that she may have actually known. Though not much is known of her life, she is still considered to be the predecessor of English women writers. However, the little that we do know about her life influenced how Oroonoko was written. Behn’s extraordinary education is also one of the biggest factors in her worldview – her cultural knowledge and innate feelings toward nobility are featured well. Her theme of the moral implications of slavery was limited by the preconceptions that ran rampant in these times. “Like almost all of her contemporaries, Aphra Behn accepted slavery for most of the enslaved” (Todd xxvi). The theme of cultural adaptations can also be shown to be related to Aphra Behn’s life experiences. Her short-lived experiences as a spy is an example of how she may have needed to culturally adapt to her surroundings as well, as well as the fact that she was a woman writer in an era where practically no women wrote – internally, she must have been able to adapt to the changing political and social standards that were prevalent in her lifetime. The moral implications of slavery was one that was considered widely in the Atlantic World, with most of the questioners agreeing that slavery was beneficial to Europe, and therefore acceptable. Behn was vague in her support of slavery – while she portrayed it as atrocious and horrid, she never stated that she was against it, and even thought of Europeans as superior to the Africans in many ways. Behn’s characterization of Oroonoko demonstrates this, as she describes not a typical African male, but instead an idealized and modified version. She says of him that “his face was not of that brown, rusty black which most of that nation are, but a perfect ebony or polished jet. His nose was rising and Roman instead of African and flat. His mouth, the finest shaped that could be seen, far from those great turned lips, which are so natural to the rest of the Negroes. The whole proportion and air of his face was so noble and exactly form that, bating his colour, there could be noting in nature more beautiful” (Behn 15). From the very beginning, Behn describes Oroonoko’s physical presence as more akin to that of a white person, as opposed to a normal African, and states that if he were not black, he would be the most beautiful person alive. This statement ties in with the common idea of European superiority over the Africans. However, this idea of superiority alone does not make Behn think slavery is righteous. She speaks of the treacherous white governor and painstakingly details the horrific abuse and torture of Oroonoko at the hands of him, and notes many other instances of cruelty to the slaves. However, Behn never speaks of banning the establishment of slavery, and even has Oroonoko himself give gifts of slaves. Behn is ambiguous in that she has arguments in both sides of the slavery debate, and never fully commits to one or the other. Even in the issue of superiority, there are clear cases where she considers the Africans to be superior, such as when Oroonoko slays two tigers that no white man could fight. The theme of cultural adaptations is also prevalent throughout Oroonoko. The wide rift between Africans and Europeans are clearly demonstrated, though similarities do exist as well. The theme of a patriarchal society are evident in both cultures, as well as the issue of nobility. In both cultures, nobility is revered and respected, and Behnherself almost idolizes it. The aforementioned cultural adaptations, in respect to this novella at least, is that Oroonoko and his love, Imoinda have to adjust in the world of white men, something totally foreign to them. What is hardest for them in this is that they are no longer free; they are slaves. What catalyzes this whole tragedy is the urge for them to be free once more, and they cannot bear to be subjugated to the unfamiliar and strange ways of their masters. Oroonoko and Imoinda are unable to adapt to the cultures of the Europeans, not because they were savages or because they were uncivilized and ignorant, but because they could simply not bear to be subjected. Behn uses the setting of Surinam to aid in her writing of Oroonoko. Her account of Oroonoko’s story is the earliest fictional representation of Africans under an English writer, at least under the Sahara desert (Todd xxiv). In the end, Oroonoko, Imoinda and their unborn child die because of their unwillingness to adapt to the cultural norms of society. They would rather kill themselves then acclimatize and accept their newfound lifestyle, and while this is noble and tragic in Behn’s eyes, in reality it may seem unrealistic and extreme. Behn’s novella is beset with inconsistencies. Intentional or not, factual or not, these inconsistencies lend to the air of confusion that Behn creates in Oroonoko. This confusion stems from the mixed allegiances Behn feels towards the idea of slavery being a cruel and outdated institution, and the idea that since it benefits Europe, it is tolerable. This air of confusion is not necessarily detrimental to the novel, because it helps to highlight the author and her tone. As a historical document, Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko indisputably holds importance. It is the first novel to sympathize with the African natives, and it is one of the first novels written by a European woman, as well. Aside from these barriers being broken down, it also was written for political reasons, and examining this helps shed lights on the political factions of this time, and aids in understanding them. The themes that Behn writes about in it also examines the worldview of Europeans and Africans during this time, a valuable thing to study.Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko implemented the theme of the moral question of slavery and of cultural adaptations to show that slavery was not the one-dimensional issue that most people of this era seemed to think it was. Though not necessarily an anti-slavery document, there are definite moments where Behn showcases the absolute dreadfulness of injustice. Considered to be one of the first abolitionist works, Oroonoko is unquestionably one of the most telling and information-providing historical documents that we have from this time period. Behn carefully crafted and melded Oroonoko into a novel that would raise haunting questions to the ideas and moral implications of slavery, and to what lengths some will go to in an effort to be truly free.
Narrative Reliability in Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe
Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe leaves home to see the world, only to find himself in a shipwreck, leaving him stranded on a deserted island for years, while Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko is a royal prince turned slave who meets his ultimate demise in the African country of Surinam. Both Defoe and Behn employ similar techniques of first-person narration in their respective stories, and while this position is advantageous to each narrator’s status within their texts, the reliability of each narrator differs significantly. Behn’s narrator’s absence from the majority of the events she depicts serves to seriously discredit her narrative reliability. Though the female narrator claims to “have often seen and conversed with [Oroonoko], and been a witness to many of his mighty actions” (2140), it is the detailed accounts she provides the reader of “what [she] could not be witness of” that becomes increasingly problematic. Aside from the events that she personally witnesses, Behn’s narrator is only able to convey a second-hand account that she receives “from the mouth of the chief actor in this history, the hero himself, who gave us the whole transactions of his youth” (2137). At one point, when speaking of Oroonoko and Imoinda blushing upon seeing each other, the narrator, though not in attendance for this particular event, speculates that “’tis certain that both these changes were evident, this day, in both these lovers” (2145). Again, while she neither personally witnesses these events nor gives any mention of speaking directly to anyone other than Oroonoko himself, the narrator is quick to stray from a viewpoint of objectivity and form assumptions of other characters’ beliefs and emotions: When the King reflects on his decision to enslave both Imoinda and Oroonoko the narrator explains that “he believed he had made a very great conquest over himself when he had once resolved, and had performed what he resolved. He believed now that his love had been unjust” (2150). We can see the narrator’s presumptions of Imoinda’s emotions again despite her fleeting presence when she explains that when “the Prince softly wakened Imoinda, who was not a little surprised with joy to find him there, she trembled with a thousand fears” (2149). Because of her absence for many of the critical events in the story, the secondary nature of her conveyance of information, and her inability to remain objective, Behn’s female narrator is fallible.Though Robinson Crusoe recalls his story almost entirely from memory, it is through his ability to reflect on his past adventures retrospectively in which he achieves reliability as a narrator. Robinson Crusoe often reveals to the reader what he remembers his thoughts to be at the time of each particular memory or situation, compared to what they are now in retrospect. When reflecting on his choice to defy his father’s wishes and go to sea, Robinson Crusoe explains that “had [he] now had the sense to have gone back to Hull, and have gone home, [he] would have been happy” (14), remembering that he “used to look upon [his] condition with the utmost regret” (32). Reminiscing of his first journey at sea, Robinson Crusoe admits that “it was [his] great misfortune that in all these adventures [he] did not ship [him]self as a sailor” (16), recalling what a “loose and unguided fellow [he] then was” (16). In addition to these reflections, Crusoe does not conceal from the reader when he is uncertain of the exact details of his story; after escaping captivity from his master by stealing his fishing boat, Robinson Crusoe explains that in his ploy to make it to the coast, he “came to an anchor in the mouth of a little river” in which he “knew not what, or where; neither what latitude, what country, what nations, or what river” (22). When reflecting upon his ability to grow various types of food on the island, Crusoe explains that he “had near two bushels of rice, and above two bushels and half of barley, that is to say, by my guess, for I had no measure at that time” (100). Of his first months on the island, Crusoe reflects that he “[did] not remember that [he] had in all that time one thought that so much as tended either to looking upwards toward God, or inwards towards a reflection upon [his] own ways” (76), explaining that he “was merely thoughtless of a God, or a Providence; acted like a mere brute from the principles of nature” (76). Unlike Behn’s female narrator, Robinson Crusoe achieves reliability as a narrator through his tendencies to reflect and provide the reader with comments on his past in retrospect, while also admitting his uncertainty of specific details. Though Behn’s and Defoe’s narrators differ significantly regarding their credibility in the relation of their respective texts, both Robinson Crusoe and Behn’s female narrator’s positions as narrators allow them to manipulate their position within the novel in a light that is advantageous to them in that it comments on their social status and power. Behn’s female narrator establishes a higher social status than that of many of the other characters in the novel when she tells the reader that “[her] stay was to be short in that country, because [her] father died at sea, and never arrived to possess the honor was designed him (which was lieutenant-general of six and thirty islands, besides the continent of Surinam)” (2162), adding that “as soon as [she] came into the country, the best house in it was presented [to her]” (2163). The way in which the narrator portrays her apparently tight-knit relationship with the story’s protagonist, Oroonoko, is also significant in that it illuminates the power she is able to exercise over the text in order to cast herself in a positive light; the narrator reveals that Oroonoko “had an entire confidence” in her (2162), while mysteriously disappearing during every instance of Oroonoko’s “ill treatment” (2173). Like Behn’s female narrator, Robinson Crusoe, too, immediately makes known to the reader that “[he] was born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family” (5). Of his position on the island, Crusoe regards himself as “lord of the whole mannor; or if [he] pleased, [he] might call [himself] King, or emperor over the whole country which [he] had possession of” (109), additionally indicating in a journal entry that the sixth of November meant it was “the sixth year of [his] reign” (117) of his “castle” (131) or “enterprise” (160). Lastly, Robinson Crusoe’s first meeting with Friday is highly indicative of the power he believes he possesses on the island: “I made him know his name should be Friday, which was the day I saved his life. I likewise taught him to say Master, and then let him know, that was to be my name” (174). While Behn’s female narrator and Robinson Crusoe differ in the credibility of their respective narratives, their position as a first-person narrator is significant to each text in that it allows each narrator to position themselves in a positive light. While Behn’s female narrator lacks credibility due to her absence in the majority of the events she depicts, as well as her failure to remain an objective third-party narrator, Robinson Crusoe achieves narrative reliability through his ability to reflect back on his past retrospectively. Both Behn’s narrator and Robinson Crusoe’s role as first-person narrators is significant in that it allows each narrator a certain authority over their texts in which they can manipulate their social status or position themselves to appear in a positive light in comparison with other characters in their novels. Works CitedBehn, Aphra. “Oroonoko.” The Longman Anthology of British Literature. 4th ed. Ed. David Damrosch and Kevin J. H. Dettmar. New York: Pearson Education, 2010. 2137-2178. Print. Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. 2008. Ed. Thomas Keymer. New York: Oxford University Press. Print.
Representations of Revolution, Uprising, Political Tension and Crisis Situations in Behn’s Oroonoko and Pope’s The Rape of the Lock
Aphra Behn and Alexander Pope both present various situations of crisis and uprising in their works, Oroonoko and The Rape of the Lock, respectively. Although the nature and intensity of the crisis situations are very different, both authors use them to make political statements about the culture of their time. The uprising and crisis in Oroonoko condemn a certain form of slavery, while the crisis in The Rape of the Lock mocks the undue focus on trivialities of society. These authors use revolution, political tension and crisis situations as a means by which they can comment on their own society and criticize its negative characteristics. In Behn’s Oroonoko, the main character, Oroonoko, is a strong and brave general who is often at war in his home country (190-191). War is a physical conflict with a purpose to solve a larger conflict or to put down uprisings. Warring nations must make sacrifices in order to gain something. Oroonoko is involved physically in war in his home country, which foreshadows the psychological war he will have to fight later on in his life. Behn likens him to Mars, the god of war, while comparing Imoinda to Venus (190). When Oroonoko hears the false information that Imoinda, his wife, is dead, he becomes so depressed that he will not fight anymore (201). He feels partly responsible for her death, because it their love for each other led to her punishment. This also foreshadows a later part of the story where Oroonoko really does kill Imoinda, but out of love. In Pope’s mock-epic, The Rape of the Lock, the main female character, Belinda receives a warning of “some [impending] dread event” (1.109). She has the protection of the Sylphs, but they cannot prevent what is to come. The only thing her personal guardian Sylph, Ariel, can say is “Beware of all, but most beware of men!” (1.114). This eerie warning sets the stage for the conflict to come. However, Belinda gets caught up in a love letter and forgets all about the warning, but the reader does not. “Wounds, Charms, and Ardors were no sooner read, But all the Vision vanish’d from thy head” (1.119-120). The fact that the reader still remembers the warning accentuates Belinda’s frivolousness and diminishes the situation. This is an instrument that Pope uses to lighten the real-life situation that is occurring in the novel’s context. The titular event actually took place in a small, tight-knit Roman Catholic society, and Pope recognized the toxicity of the divide amongst the people. He was asked to write this poem in an effort to reconcile the situation and diffuse the hostility and resentment. Pope took this opportunity to write the poem as a mock-epic in order to make its subjects see how trifling the matter really was in the broader sense. In Oroonoko, the main conflict is between Oroonoko and his fellow slaves and the people in charge of them. It is not a traditional anti-slave narrative, because Oroonoko had slaves back in his homeland. The first time he goes to visit Imoinda it is partly to “present her with those slaves that had been taken in the last battle, as the trophies of her father’s victories” (191). What Aphra Behn is condemning in his text is royal slavery. She describes Oroonoko, who is a royal slave, in a vastly different light than the other slaves. His description practically makes him sound European. The only differences are his religion and skin color. There are differences between Oroonoko’s personality and the other slaves’. During the battle between the slaves and their owners, Oroonoko, Imoinda and Tuscan are the only slaves that do not give up (223). Oroonoko sees himself as a noble warrior, not a slave, and this is apparent in his actions. The slaves give up when they originally planned that “If they died in the attempt it would be more brave than to live in perpetual slavery” (222). It is Oroonoko who suggests that the slaves rebel and Oroonoko who leads the rebellion. The other slaves are not able to conceive of such an idea on their own. Not only do the other slaves all give up, but they betray Oroonoko as well. “He saw every one of those slaves, that but a few days before adored him as something more than mortal, now had a whip to give him some lashes” (225). The fickleness of the slaves contrasts with Oroonoko’s faithfulness, especially to Imoinda. The multiple differences between Oroonoko and the other slaves show Aphra Behn’s position on slavery. She feels that there are certain types of people who are meant to be slaves but that Oroonoko is not one of them. He is part of the nobility and nobility are not supposed to be enslaved, no matter what nationality they are. Before the battle, Oroonoko makes a very moving anti-slavery speech which, if the rebellion had been successful, would have made this more of an anti-slavery novel. The rebellion fails, however, and in the end it is only the royal slaves who do not give up the fight. On this note, it could be understood that the anti-slavery speech was only applicable to the noble slaves. Aphra Behn’s political position may have influenced her opinion of royal slaves. In her description of Oroonoko, she says that “he had heard of the late civil wars in England, and the deplorable death of our great monarch, and would discourse of it with all the sense and abhorrence of the injustice imaginable” (189-190). This refers to the beheading of King Charles I during the Civil War between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians. in England. It would have signalled Behn’s ardent support of James II, the last of the Stuart kings. The fact that she portrays Oroonoko as a hero, and then gives him her own Royalist opinion, shows the high regard she has for him. Pope’s The Rape of the Lock is a mock epic following the structure of the Iliad, satirizing the attention a society paid to meaningless events. It is a sophisticated way to criticize people’s foolishness. The main event is when the Baron cuts off a lock of Belinda’s hair for himself. Cutting her hair is something that cannot be undone. Hair is symbolic because it is a part of Belinda and connected to her sexuality. The loss of hair de-values her in a way, and is therefore extremely upsetting. A battle ensues between the sexes, each trying to get a hold of Belinda’s stolen lock of hair. Pope describes this scene is using war-like terms. The game of cards is described in terms of a battle, the cards are “particolor’d troops” (3.44), and “advent’rous Knights” (3.26) that are “Draw[ing] forth to combat on the velvet plain” (3.45). Pope describes the scene in these terms to parallel the battle scenes in the Iliad. The epic form and the comparison to the great battles of the Iliad heighten the effect of Pope’s satire. “Men, monkeys, lap-dogs, parrots, perish all!” (4.120), Belinda’s exclaims upon losing her lock. She compares the grief from the loss of her lock to death and by doing so, draws attention to the triviality of the situation. She raises the animals to the same level as men, at the same time she brings men down to the level of the animals. In reality, many people would, and probably should, be much more devastated over the death of a man than a lap dog. Here, Pope is satirizing the misplaced ethical priorities people had at the time, illuminating society’s misplaced sense of urgency. The main focus in The Rape of the Lock is the lack of importance society places on important matters versus the extreme importance they place on small, trivial matters, while in Oroonoko, Behn derides only certain kind of slavery. The main crisis events in each of these works are so different, with different results, yet their authors use them to express a political message. Oroonoko’s slave rebellion ends in failure when the other slaves giving up. This shows that the other slaves are fit to be slaves since they do not want their freedom enough to make sacrifices for it. Oroonoko, conversely, would give up anything to be free, eventually making the ultimate sacrifice in order to ensure his baby is not born into slavery. He kills Imoinda out of love, securing his wish that his child is not a slave by making sure his child is not born at all. He tries to kill himself unfortunately heals and is tortured even more before he dies. The ending of The Rape of the Lock is quite different. There are no winners and losers, Belinda’s lock of hair “adds new glory to the shining sphere!” (5.142). It becomes a star. Since the battle for Belinda’s hair is mainly a battle of the sexes and includes real life people Pope lived with, it is important that the poem remain neutral in the outcome. The fact that neither sex comes out on top shows the importance of equality between men and women, which is another important point Pope makes in this poem. Although the primary crisis events of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko and Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock are immeasurably different in nature and momentousness, both authors use them to convey important political messages about their societies. Oroonoko makes the point that slaves are sometimes not all that different from their masters, and condemns keeping royal or noble slaves who were not born for that purpose. The Rape of the Lock, on the other hand.ridicules society’s obsession with the inconsequentialities of life. Although the main crisis situations of Oroonoko and The Rape of the Lock are immensely diverse, they share the same purpose in appraising society, satirizing or commenting on its adverse facets.Works Cited:Behn, Aphra. “Oroonoko.” The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women. Comp. Sandra M. Gilbert, Susan Gubar. New York. W. W. Nortan & Company, Inc. 2007. 186-231. Print.Pope, Alexander. “The Rape of the Lock.” The Broadview Anthology of British Literature. Comp. Joseph Black. Peterborough, Ontario, Broadview Press, 2007. 1402. Print.
Speech, Silences and Bodily Manifestations in Madame de Lafayette’s The Princess de Cleves and Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko
In her essay, “Origins of the Novel”, Marthe Robert characterises the novel as knowing “neither rule nor restraint. Open to every possibility, its boundaries fluctuate in all directions”. Indeed, both Madame de Lafayette’s The Princess de Cleves and Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko are often claimed to be the first novels to engage in the psychological analysis and realist depiction of marginalised groups in society, thereby triumphing over earlier, more prescriptive forms of writing. A crucial way in which these novels dissect human emotions and conduct is through the complex and multilayered forms of communication between characters. While spoken language is often superficial and dictated by social protocol, the various physical manifestations and involuntary bodily “confessions” described in the novels expose the elaborate ambiguities and passions behind human behaviour. Set in the hierarchical and refined sixteenth-century royal court of Henri II, the characters in The Princess de Cleves engage in polite discourse and customary platitudes, thus exuding a sense of courtly propriety. As such, they often address each other in an elevated and courteous manner: “I swear to Your Majesty, with all the respect that I owe you, that I have no attachment for any lady of the court” . The princess herself is subject to the codes of courtly discourse, and her manner of speaking is largely characteristic of her reticent temperament. Her effaceable language therefore reflects the importance of outward respectability and the dominance of approved social “maxims” to which the protagonist is expected to adhere. For example, through the telling of cautionary tales, such as that of the adulterous Mme de Tournon, Madame de Cleves learns that a lady of the court is expected to show respect and subservience to her husband. The emphasis placed on sincerity and good manners therefore guarantees that true feelings are frequently hidden. Indeed, it is not until the strikingly unconventional “confession scene” that the characters’ facade of polite diffidence slips away, with husband and wife finally engaging in a remarkably modern outburst of emotions: “I adore you, I hate you, I offend you, I beg your forgiveness; I am filled with wonder and admiration for you, and with shame at these feelings”  Madame de Cleves herself acknowledges the particularity of her discourse – “a confession to you that no wife has ever made to her husband” – thereby accentuating the scene’s atypical nature and reinforcing the reader’s perception of the royal court as an oppressive and stifling environment. Spoken dialogue thus takes a highly ritualised and insincere form, enabling the characters to hide behind a restrictive mask of courtly decorum and civility. Due to the contrived and formulaic nature of much spoken language, therefore, words are often twisted and distorted in order to exercise control over others. The manipulative power of the spoken word is demonstrated by the Duc de Nemours’s skilful reassurances following a misunderstanding: “as it is easy to persuade someone of a truth they want to believe, he convinced her that he had no part in the letter” . The ease with which the Duc alters Madame de Cleve’s perceptions exposes the potential of spoken language to act as a tool of deception. Indeed, the significant amount of whispering and rumour-spreading that occurs in the novel suggests that the face that one presents to the court may be very different to their true character. The danger associated with speech is pertinently articulated by Mme de Chartres, who warns that “If you judge by appearances in this place… you will often be deceived, because what appears to be the case hardly ever is” . In spite of her mother’s advice, however, Madame de Cleves’s inability to interpret the true intentions behind speech exacerbates her lack of power in a highly ruthless society, a shortcoming which leads to tragic consequences. A similar naivety and guilessness with regard to spoken language can be found in Oroonoko, with the “Royal Slave” displaying an almost childlike trust in the words of others. The protagonist, “whose Honour was such as he never had violated a Word in his life himself” , places an unquestioning value on the spoken word and is thus continually the victim of deception and misinformation: “They fed him from Day to Day with Promises, and delay’d him, till the Lord Governor shou’d come; so that he began to suspect them of falsehood” . Furthermore, it could be claimed that his wife is the greater victim of the monopolised nature of spoken language – largely silent throughout the novel, both her gender and her race place her at a social disadvantage. Her status as a “doubly oppressed” character ensures that Imoinda does not have the privilege of expressing herself through open dialogue. As a result, it is clear that spoken language (or the lack thereof) can be used as a tool of subjugation and dishonesty by those who hold positions of power in society. It is therefore necessary to consider other forms of communication between characters, as true emotions are rarely portrayed through dialogue alone. In the light of this, it can be claimed that silence, rather than the spoken word, offers a more penetrating insight into the human mind. Due to Imoinda’s engagement to the King, the two lovers are initially unable to outwardly express affection for each other and must, therefore, rely on tacit exchanges. Upon their reunion, they communicate simply through the “Parley of the Eyes”, yet their feelings are made clear through the manner in which they silently gaze at one another: “’twas this powerful Language alone that in an Instant convey’d all the Thoughts of their Souls to each other”  By portraying the two central characters’ love in such understated terms, Behn is therefore suggesting that silence can act as a form of language in itself, as mere glances can effectively convey the most intense and powerful of emotions. Similarly, the adulterous courtship depicted in The Princess de Cleves is largely undertaken by the silent act of looking. Indeed, it has been noted that Madame de Cleves and the Duc de Nemours never so much as touch hands throughout the course of the novel, yet their interaction is highly erotically-charged. This quiet passion is most apparent during the Duc’s secret visit to Mme de Cleves’s country house at Coulommiers, an act of “mutual voyeurism” which sees him furtively observing the princess gazing at his portrait “with the intensity of meditation that only passionate love can induce” . Although no words are uttered during this scene, the two characters’ mutual longing is made explicit through their private actions. Furthermore, the frequent moments of silence in the novel enable the reader to gain a valuable insight into the thoughts of certain characters, for example through the interior monologue of M. de Cleves: “For she does indeed love me,” he said…”. By gaining access to his innermost thoughts, the reader is privy to something that he would not express in speech, and thus feels a degree of empathy towards his predicament. As Woshinsky highlights, the inhabitants of the court have been conditioned to keep their true feelings to themselves, and “they do not dare cease, because they have no way of dealing with open feeling”. Tellingly, it is Madame de Cleves’s silence which betrays her adulterous feelings towards another man, thus enabling her husband to correctly decipher her behaviour: “Mme de Cleves said nothing and her silence confirmed what her husband was thinking. “You do not answer,” he went on. “And that means that I am correct.””  The emotional intensity of the discourse in this scene exposes another notable function of silence in the novel. It plays in crucial role in the building of tension and suspense throughout M. de Cleves’s interrogation of his wife, culminating in the desperate, physical act of Mme de Cleves “throwing herself at his feet”. De Lafayette therefore uses silence as a narrative tool, allowing her to explore the previously neglected theme of fears and desires of women in sixteenth-century France. While it is clear that much spoken language is rife with dishonesty and insincerity, both de Lafayette and Behn suggest that a kind of truth can instead be found on the body. There are several examples of bodily confessions throughout the two narratives, suggesting that it is possible for the human body itself to be “read”. For example, Madame de Cleves outwardly reveals the subject of her thoughts through the act of “fondling” the ribbons bearing the colours she associates with the Duc de Nemours, with its sexual connotations reminding us of the intensity of her desire. In addition, many instances can be found of Mme de Cleves being betrayed by her blushes, a physical reaction that she has no control over – “luckily for her, her face was in shadow” . It is through spontaneous physical responses, therefore, that the body inadvertently confesses the sins of the mind. Likewise, the inhabitants of Surinam in Oroonoko display their feelings of affection through modest glances and blushes (“A Negro can change Colour; for I have seen ‘em as frequently blush, and look pale, and that as visibly as ever I saw in the most beautiful White”) . As the characters have very little control over their physical expressions, it can thus be said to be the only means through which truth is fully displayed. Consequently, both The Princess de Cleves and Oroonoko relate moral decency to bodily display, presenting the body as a symbol of virtue and discipline. While the inhabitants of the court in The Princess de Cleves achieve this through elaborate dress and lavish jewellery, the bodily display in Oroonoko takes a much less refined form, with Behn placing a particular emphasis on mutilation and maiming. As Robert L. Chibka notes, “Proof on the body becomes increasingly the only kind that counts”, and the death of Oroonoko’s wife summons a grief that cannot be expressed through mere words. Instead, value is placed on fortitude, and contempt of physical pain is regarded as a test of moral calibre. This endurance is most strikingly presented through the symbolic image of Oroonoko calmly smoking throughout his dismemberment, thereby proving his heroic status: “He had learn’d to take Tobaco; and when he was assur’d he should Dye, he desir’d they would give him a Pipe in his Mouth, ready Lighted, which they did; and the Executioner came, and first cut off his Members, and threw them into the Fire; after that, with an ill-favoured Knife, they cut his Ears, and his Nose, and burn’d them; he still Smoak’d on, as if nothing had touch’d him…”  By resisting the temptation of suicide and choosing a noble death, Oroonoko avoids the degrading label of “slave”, instead becoming a figure of admiration and respect. Similarly, Madame de Cleves does not act upon her desire for the Duc de Nemours and thus retains her sexual and emotional integrity in order to resist self-definition as an adulteress. As a consequence, both Madame de Cleves and Oroonoko demonstrate a remarkable sense of restraint – albeit in very different ways – thus illustrating how bodily manifestations are often indicative of a person’s inner-self. In conclusion, it is clear that spoken discourse alone does not adequately express the intricate emotions and behaviours involved in human interaction. Rather, Behn and de Lafayette demonstrate how small-scale interactions between individuals, whether through explicit dialogue or subtle physical expressions, can have much wider ramifications. Bodily expressions, such as blushing and lustful glances, convey intensely powerful emotions and thoughts, offering the reader a deeper insight into the psyche of the characters. Therefore, both Oroonoko and The Princess de Cleves are highly innovative novels, with the writers’ synthesis of verbal discourse and bodily manifestations providing the reader with an affecting insight into the complexity of human emotions and behaviours.
“Contrary to the custom of his country…” : Gender and Values in Oroonoko
Aphra Behn’s genre-blending tale Oroonoko melds travel narrative with fictional biography to tell the story of Prince Oroonoko, “the royal slave.” Although Behn writes of Oroonoko’s honor as unique among men, her admiration for him seems to derive directly from how closely he mirrors the prime model of a nobly descended, Christian Englander. Indeed, Behn measures and praises Oroonoko’s masculinity only in terms of these parallels. Other males, such as Oroonoko’s grandfather, are emasculated through their failure to conform to these standards. The femininity of Oroonoko’s bride, Imoinda, is also a subject of praise in that it embodies the normative values of beauty and modesty of the time. This essay argues that Behn’s juxtaposition of native qualities with values of the period constructs the gender of her characters in such a way that they function only as dark-skinned representatives of white virtue. Furthermore, this paper will analyze the texts of Oroonoko and Addison and Steele’s The Spectator to demonstrate how certain writers of the time dealt with “the other” via subjective cultural standards. Behn introduces us to Oroonoko as an African warrior-prince in possession of unusually Caucasian physical traits. She writes, “His nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat. His mouth the finest shaped that could be seen; far from those great turned lips which are so natural to the rest of the negroes” (8). Under the tutelage of a Frenchman, he acquired a knowledge of language, science and morality. Behn partially attributes Oroonoko’s “humanity” to this tutelage. Not only is he an impressive speaker of English, but is also able to carry on a conversation in English with as much wit and charm as a native speaker. From her alleged personal interactions with Oroonoko, Behn claims, “He had nothing of barbarity in his nature, but in all points addressed himself as if his education had been in some European court” (7). From these details it becomes apparent that Behn’s delight in Oroonoko stems from his European trappings. In many ways, Oroonoko becomes the “noble anti-savage” (although a solid definition of the “noble savage” has not yet emerged at this time). As opposed to his nobility coming through minimal contact with civilization, he is instead commended for his ability to learn from the white men he encounters. Much more attention is devoted to his ability for English mimicry than his African qualities. Behn states his skin color to be of “perfect ebony,” unlike the common “rusty black” of his nation, but still regards it as an obstacle to the consummation of his beauty (8).Oroonoko’s sexual behavior also is set apart from that of his fellow countrymen because it follows a code of monogamy. He promises his new wife, Imoinda, that “contrary to the custom of his country, he made her vows she should be the only woman he would possess while he lived” (10). This is yet another instance in which Behn projects Christian values onto Oroonoko in order to set him apart from his race. Thus, few of his admirable traits lie in his separation from English culture. As Behn creates less shining examples of Oroonoko’s countrymen, it seems that Oroonoko has overcome his race and that therein lies his value. Oroonoko’s grandfather, the King of Cormantien, is portrayed as a man of excess. His palace teems with women whose sole function is to please him. Despite his innumerable women, the king desires Imoinda. In an act of duplicity, he orders his servants to bring her the royal veil (a symbol that she must come to the king’s bed or be punished by death) while his grandson is out hunting. Yet the king exemplifies the emasculatory qualities of sin, for his repeated lasciviousness has robbed him of his sexual virility. Once Oroonoko and Imoinda finally reunite, Imoinda claims “…that she remained a spotless maid till that night, and that what she did with his grandfather had robbed him of no part of her virgin-honor…” (19). Because Oroonoko is pure for Imoinda, he “ravished in a moment what his old grandfather had been endeavoring for so many months” (19). Despite her libertine practices, Behn condemns the polyamorous practices of Oroonoko’s people and praises, instead, marriage and monogamy.Although many of Oroonoko’s qualities reflect Behn’s religious values, she does not choose to depict Oroonoko as a Christian. This choice seems to stem from Behn’s desire to condemn those who identify with Christianity, but do not follow its teachings. For example, Oroonoko’s first encounter with Christianity occurs after his capture, when a sea captain deceives him into enslavement by swearing upon the Christian god that he will release him once the ship reaches shore (27). In reaction to this deceit, Oroonoko says, “Farewell, Sir, ‘tis worth my suffering to gain so true a knowledge both of you and of your gods by whom you swear” (29). Behn’s later attempts to engage him in discourse of the Trinity fall are ignored. Oroonoko’s resentment of Christian religion is portrayed as unfortunate, but justified. Even so, his values mirror the religion so closely that his official rejection of it becomes negligible. Behn also measures femininity by the standards of European Christendom. Oroonoko’s bride, Imoinda, is repeatedly described as possessing “modesty and extraordinary prettiness” (34). She is the constant object of white desire, and is often claimed to elicit more sighs than many “white beauties” (34). Much of the text is devoted to praising a beauty so great that it becomes a burden. The preservation of the virtue of her body becomes the focal point of Imoinda’s fate. Her purity is constantly threatened and/or put into question, and her agency dwindles as her circumstances give her decreasingly less control over her body. When captured by the king, he obligates her to “swear thyself a maid” (11). Once she and Oroonoko are reunited, she is compelled to swear that the king had not deprived him of her maidenhood. Upon the king’s discovery that Imoinda and Oroonoko have copulated, he sells Imoinda into slavery, for after being possessed by a family member, to touch her would be “the greatest crime in nature amongst ‘em,” she was now “a polluted thing, wholly unfit for his embrace” (21). This action hinges completely on the state of Imoinda’s body, for before, the king found no fault in usurping her from her husband as long as she had remained pure. There is no detailed account of Imoinda’s time in slavery before Oroonoko finds her once again. However, from Trefry’s account we can derive that she spent the majority of her time warding off admirers (including Trefry) and retaining the purity of her body. Trefry recounts of his attempts that “she disarms me with that modesty and weeping, so tender and so moving that I retire, and thank my stars she overcame me” (33). Finally, Imoinda’s heartrending death is enacted by her husband as part of his plan to take revenge on the white men who betrayed him. He fears that if he dies in his attempts, Imoinda would be left behind and “ravaged by every brute, exposed first to their nasty lusts, and then a shameful death” (53). As a “heroic wife,” she wholeheartedly obeys her husband, “for wives have a respect for their husbands equal to what any other people pay a deity” (54). In this act, therefore, Imoinda embodies the ideal wife and the pinnacle of feminity—more willing to die by the hand of her husband than to have her virtue threatened by strangers. Addison and Steele’s The Spectator introduces a narrative with similar Eurocentric tactics. The frame story of Inkle and Yarico is told by a woman of high stature who is challenging the assertion that women are ruthless and fickle in matters of romantic love. Yarico, an Indian princess, provides food and shelter to a stranded Englishman named Inkle. The reader becomes aware that Yarico is of nobility in that her style of dress is vaguely European: “She was, it seems, a person of distinction, for she every day came to him in a different dress, of the most beautiful shells, bugles and bredes” (2481). The two become enamored with one another and Yarico tells Inkle that she is pregnant with his child, but upon his rescue, Inkle sells Yarico into the slave trade. In the majority of the narrative, Yarico is portrayed as the provider while Inkle passively waits in his shelter. At night, “Her part was to watch and hold him in her arms, for fear of her countrymen, and wake him on occasions to consult his safety” (2481). Much like Oroonoko, Inkle is set apart from her countrymen in her European resonances and her insistence on protecting an Englishman. She is portrayed as an exception to the rule, not as a positive representative of Native Americans. In her beauty, compassion and morality, she is the model of femininity. Yarico’s sale into slavery, as a virtuous woman of “distinction,” pulls the reader’s heartstrings. There is no such compassion for Inkle, who has forfeited his masculinity both by lacking Christ-like compassion and by being willing to be provided for by a woman. This conflation of gender, virtue and status, seen both in Oroonoko and the Spectator, renders characters flat. Their lack of dimensionality and interiority cripple any representation of difference. They become a blank canvas for European traits, and their skin color or bodily carvings (which mark their distinction) become secondary to their successful mirroring of English virtue, nobility, purity and beauty. They are endowed, instead, with a sense of “true” manhood and womanhood. In the case of Oroonoko’s grandfather, his practices are distinctly “othered,” and this disparity posits him as an inadequate man. Oddly enough, in the case of Oroonoko, Imoinda and Yarico, their success in emulation does not save them from a fate of slavery or death.
Oroonoko: A Fallen God, a Slave to Honor
…’twas amazing to imagine where it was he learned so much humanity; or, to give his accomplishments a juster name, where ’twas he got that real greatness of soul, those refined notions of true honour, that absolute generosity, and that softness that was capable of the highest passions of love and gallantry…(10-11) So states the narrator of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko: Or, the Royal Slave. The narrator alludes in the above quotation to Oroonoko as a royal king but throughout the novella implies additional meanings to words “Royal Slave”; Oroonoko is “stately, magnificent, splendid” as well as “finely arrayed; resplendent; grand or imposing”. Oroonoko’s “stately” royalty suggests an elevation not only above other slaves because of his social status, but his “refined notions of true honour” raise him above even the most powerful white men later in the novella. Likewise, the word “slave” carries multiple meanings. Oroonoko is not a slave in the literal sense, as the narrator comments that Oroonoko suffers “only the name of a slave, and…nothing of the toil and labour of one,” but rather a slave to practicing his high ideals of honor (46). Just as it can be recognized that Oroonoko is not merely a royal slave literally sense, it can also be interpreted that the work Oroonoko is not a clear-cut anti-slavery work. In fact, Behn only really completely condemns two things: that such a high individual as Oroonoko be unfairly cast into a much lower class than himself, and that the slave traffickers deceive Africans unfairly with deplorable techniques. As a result, Behn concentrates on how enslaving the idea of someone like Oroonoko is the worst of the atrocities committed in the name of Imperialism. That someone who is literal royalty and someone who puts into practice high ideals should be forced into a dishonorable life, Behn would agree, is far worse than the practice of slavery itself, an institution the narrator never consistently renounces. The narrator’s exaltation of Oroonoko’s physical and psychological features is a key to this interpretation. The narrator describes Oroonoko’s face as “not of that brown, rusty black which most of that nation are, but a perfect ebony or polished jet…his nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat…his mouth, the finest shaped that could be seen, far from those great turned lips, which are so natural to the rest of the negroes,” evidence that the narrator takes pains to separate Oroonoko from the rest of the African race (12). He is altogether different, and therefore it is not the enslavement of the African race that Behn protests against, but the enslavement of such a special and perfect character. Indeed, Oroonoko is also much different from his African brethren in the ways of his mind; in his formative years, Oroonoko receives the “wit and learning” of a “French man” in the form of “morals, language, and science,” (11). Behn abhors that Colonialism that Colonialism dare lay hands on such a refined specimen, not all of the slaves collectively; this is the main grievance Behn and Oroonoko’s narrator share. Not only does this language indicate that Oroonoko’s physical and psychological capabilities differ greatly from the other “negroes”, but also the treatment of Oroonoko results in an almost blind acceptance of slavery as institution by the narrator. After describing Oroonoko’s advanced learning in the sciences and wit of the white man, she tells of his uncanny ability to learn the English and Spanish languages, and utilize his deftness in each in the slave trade (11). At one point Oroonoko offers Imoinda slaves as a gift, and also tries to barter for his own freedom with “either gold or a vast quantity of slaves” (44). Also in Africa, because of frequent war and Oroonoko’s God-like strength and bravery, he has “the fortune to take a great many captives,” and as the top spoils of war in Africa are “…slaves; at least, those common men who could not ransom themselves,” Oroonoko himself becomes a type of slave master (10). Here, Behn establishes this idea as a precedent for the rest of the novella, in that only those beyond a certain threshold and above a certain level of class (i.e. if someone will pay your ransom) have an inalienable right to remain free. All people of power in Surinam, as well as those below, recognize that Oroonoko is not this type of common man, and should not be demoted to a mere slave. Exceptions to the rule are the “innocent” Surinamese, who, despite having the brand of common man, they outnumber the minority Negro and white populations as to prevent their own enslavement. Bondage in Oroonoko can be avoided so long as an individual maintains a high profile or a group retains strength in numbers, a scheme that the narrator never overtly attacks. Aside from Behn’s descriptions of Oroonoko’s capabilities and their counter effects on an abolitionist interpretation of the work, it is Oroonoko’s sense of honor that makes his fall so tragic. Oroonoko most blatantly outlines his faith in honor during his speech wherein he calls for a slave revolt: “Have they vanquished us nobly in fight? Have they won us in honourable battle?” these methods, to Oroonoko, are the only acceptable methods by which one can honorably reduce another man to slavery (58). This part of the speech decries the white man’s methods of turning Oroonoko and the Africans to slavery, but also half-justifies the institution in following Oroonoko’s sense of honor. Only “by the chance of war” does Oroonoko believe one should become a slave, because honor is “the first principle of nature”; to die with honor is greater than to live in shame, in slavery, and in dishonor (58, 59). Slavery becomes acceptable, even just, Behn emphasizes, through an honorable approach like Oroonoko’s. Because Oroonoko practices his high sense of honor and “never had violated a word in his life himself,” Behn seems to think it allowable for slavery to occur when under the ruling power of such an elegant power structure as Oroonoko’s (35).The narrator places this system of Oroonoko’s much higher than both the other Africans and the white man explicitly. Oroonoko utilizes his military skills and through his power in speech gains the support of all slaves, who “with one accord [vow] to follow him to death,” forming a pact of honor (59). When the slaves betray Oroonoko (except for Tuscan and Imoinda), once again an honorable bond of trust breaks, just as Oroonoko experiences with the ship captain and his innumerable broken promises with the white men for his liberty. When the other Africans give up the revolt, they violate Oroonoko’s, honor system and become to him “by nature slaves, poor, wretched rogues, fit to be used as the Christian’s tool, dogs treacherous and cowardly” (62). Oroonoko continues on a diatribe that the narrator can only describe as “not fit here to be recited” (63). His fellow rebels deserting him, Oroonoko is left to fight for his honor with only Tuscan and Imoinda. While Oroonoko at this point has only scarce traces of respect for Trefry, Byam, and the other white men, they nevertheless strike a chord with Oroonoko’s innate sense of honor in offering a contract under which they would allow Oroonoko to “name his conditions” (63). Because Oroonoko perceives this as “the common way of contract between man and man amongst the whites,” the type of contract Oroonoko himself would never break, he agrees to cease the revolt (63). Trefry and Byam, though, have no plans to maintain their promises, for they are “faithless” in their Christian God and have no comparable honor system to Oroonoko’s (63). At the end of the novella the whites kill Oroonoko in crucifixion fashion; Oroonoko “still [smokes] on” while his arms and legs are chopped off, like a true martyr, and Behn suggests that Oroonoko maintains his superhuman status posthumously in labeling his dead corpse a “mangled king” (72, 73). Even in death, Oroonoko retains his royalty and his slave status; even when presented with the possibility of death, he remains a slave to honor. The real tragedy here, Behn would suggest, is that the Colonists degrade the best, most morally strong man in the entire novella to slavery and eventually death. Oroonoko’s situation has little to do with the “common man” fighting the evils of slavery, for he is the opposite of the common man. Oroonoko is a fallen God, unrecognized by the white Christians because he is in different clothing and subscribes to a different religious system predicated exclusively on a principle of honor. He is an African prince, not a common slave; the color of his skin is only a complicating factor of, and not a contributing factor to, the misfortune of his situation.
Modes of Seduction as Political Discourse in Aphra Behn’s “Oroonoko”
‘The telling of a story of seduction is also a mode of seduction.’ (Ros Ballaster)
In our contemporary world, to ‘seduce’ or be ‘seduced’ often has a sexual connotation, of a person persuading another, using various techniques, to engage in a sexual act with them. However, whilst this kind of seduction is apparent in Aphra Behn’s work, seduction can also mean, as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary: ‘to lead (a person) astray in conduct or belief; to draw away from the right or intended course of action to or into a wrong one.’ This definition suggests that seduction is a kind of deception or sabotage; the difference being that seduction is an attractive and subtle art. Seduction, both sexual and deceptive, is prevalent in Behn’s Oroonoko, with the king’s failed seduction of Imoinda, the false promises of the slave-traders, and perhaps most significantly, the narrator’s own seduction of the reader; indeed making the ‘story of seduction’ a ‘mode of seduction.’ If indeed Ballaster’s statement is true, it implies that Behn’s story is a measured and deliberate attempt to lead the reader into believing something, an attempt perhaps to lead her contemporary readers away from conventional opinion. This essay will explore the different kinds of seduction Behn both depicts and enacts on her reader in order to express political opinion and criticism.
If Behn’s book is a ‘mode’ of seduction, then this seduction must be mediated through the narrator, whom many assume is a version of Behn herself, who was said to have travelled to Surinam. Behn’s protagonist and hero is black, a fact which raises a problem of trying to get a readership who believed that black people were inferior to white to sympathise with this hero. ‘Seduction’ here works in two ways, firstly in seducing the audience into sympathy for Oroonoko, an effect achieved by portraying those within the novel as being seduced by him. At the very outset of the book, the narrator presents an opinion of Oroonoko’s character before we encounter him for ourselves, stating ‘we […] were perfectly charmed with the character of this great man,’1 with the collective pronoun ‘we’ allowing the reader to anticipate that they too, will be similarly charmed. Behn’s use of a white, English, female narrator is key in providing a reliable figure in whom the reader can place their trust, and whether or not the narrator herself is seductive is not necessarily relevant to what Behn is trying to achieve; rather, it is the narrator’s experience of being seduced by Oroonoko that issignificant:
‘His face was not that of a brown, rusty black which most of that nation are, but a perfect ebony, or polished jet. […] His nose was rising and Roman, instead of African and flat. His mouth, the finest shaped that could be seen; far from those great turned lips, which are so natural to the rest of Negroes.’
Not only here is Oroonoko’s beauty depicted in the words of a white woman, but she also attributes incredibly Euro-centric features to him, such as a ‘rising roman nose,’ and ‘fine shaped’ lips; setting him apart distinctly from the other ‘Negroes.’ In fact, from the initial description given by the narrator, Oroonoko is in every way like a white person other than his ‘perfect ebony’ skin. This is where the finely tuned ‘art’ of seduction comes in; the contemporary reader is presented with a man who is in every way like the white people they know, with european values, ‘he has heard of, and admired the Romans,’3 with the only difference being his skin, meaning he becomes much less an alien ‘other’ to Behn’s contemporaries, who were unlikely to have associated beauty with blackness, and instead becomes seductive and enticing because he possesses ‘ideal’ european beauty yet with black skin. Additionally, this passage hones in on the particulars of Oroonoko’s face, his nose, his skin, and his lips, the latter of these being a sexually seductive feature. Indeed, Oroonoko possesses many of the features of a person universally considered to be attractive, and subsequently seductive, and in the very act of Behn having a narrator depict these, the reader is seduced alongside her.
Imoinda is a similarly beautiful and seductive ‘exception’ to the rest of her ethnic group:
‘[her] face and person was so exceeding all he had ever beheld; that lovely modesty with which she received him, that softness in her look[.]’
Again, Imoinda, even though described through the narrator’s depiction of what Oroonoko saw in her, is awarded attributes considered attractive in Western culture, those being ‘modesty’ and ‘softness’ as well as her obvious physical beauty. Where as readers we are seduced by both Oroonoko and Imoinda by the narrator, Behn presents differing kinds of seduction; a seduction which is pure and based on the good and noble qualities of something or someone (as with our affection towards Oroonoko and Imoinda), and seduction which is superficial, false, and deceptive. Indeed, the narrator, at the start of the novel likens the native people to ‘our first parents before the Fall,’ a simile which explicitly suggests that the natives, including both Oroonoko and Imoinda are pure, untainted and innocent. Indeed, in a similar way to Adam and Eve’s pure, unlustful love before the Fall, the courtship between Oroonoko and Imoinda involves none of the deception or deceit that ‘seduction’ may imply. Rather, their interactions are presented as reciprocal and unforced:
‘he told her with his eyes that he was not insensible of her charms; while Imoinda, who wished for nothing more than so glorious a conquest, was pleased to believe she understood that silentlanguage of new-born love[.]’
Behn splits the sentence here into two almost equal clauses, one concerning Oroonoko and the other concerning Imoinda, expressing the balance in the mutual affection the two share. Additionally, Behn chooses ‘conquest’ to refer to Oroonoko, interesting as this places Imoinda in a dominant position over him, reversing the conventional gender roles in Behn’s era. This reciprocal, pure, unadulterated courtship stands in opposition to the attempted seduction of Imoinda by the king:
‘now grown to his second childhood, [he] longed with impatience to behold this gay thing, with whom, alas, he could but innocently play.’
Here there is a stark contrast in Ben’s use of language, which is no longer heightened and poetic as with ‘nothing more than so glorious a conquest,’ but short and plain. The words ‘childhood’ and ‘play’ suggest an innocence, but a perverted one rather than something truly pure. The depiction of gaze and eyes is also subverted; whereas Oroonoko tells Imoinda ‘with his eyes’ of his love and she understands that ‘silent language,’ here the king longs to ‘behold’ Imoinda, an objectifying and onesided action. As Laura J. Rosenthal suggests in her essay on Behn, women, and society, Behn ‘vehemently attacks the immorality of forced marriages and her heroine vigorously express the loathsomeness of being forced to marry a rich old man as no better than rape,’ and indeed Imoinda recieves the king’s veil with ‘surprise and grief.’84 It seems therefore, that in terms of sexual seduction within the book, Behn purposefully presents us with a reciprocal and unadulterated seduction in contrast with a forceful and manipulative seduction in order to express her distaste at her own society’s acceptance of this latter kind of seduction forced upon women. Through her narrator, we are seduced by the nobility and beauty of both Oroonoko and Imoinda but repulsed by the king, placing our sympathies firmly with the former couple.
Another kind of seduction arises in the enticing prospect of colonialism and new lands; this however being another kind of seduction that is false and superficial, for it is tainted by the violence of the English colonialists; Susan Z. Andrade commenting that ‘Behn depicts the system of colonial slave labour as dangerously unstable and constantly hovering on the edge of unspeakable violence.’ In a similar way to the gender politics Behn expresses through the seduction of Imodina by the king, Behn allows her reader to be seduced by colonialism before revealing its atrocities in order to criticise it to some degree:
‘it affords all things both for beauty and use; ’tis there eternal spring, always the very months of April, May and June.’
This description stands in bleak contrast to the later description of the landscape, after Oroonoko has been driven to murder Imoinda:
‘they smelt an unusual smell, as of a dead body, for stinks must be very noisome that can be distinguished among such a quantity if natural sweets, as every inch of that land produces.’
In this latter extract, it is clear that all the ‘beauty’ and sweetness of the foreign land has been spoiled and tainted, the ‘noisome’ smell of Imoinda’s body penetrating the ‘natural sweets’ and signalling that though superficially seductive, the lands the English colonised have been ruined by their violent atrocities. In a similar way to Behn’s comparison of the native Africans to Adam and Eve before the fall, the foreign lands are in themselves innocent and pure and for that reason seductive; by seducing the readers with the beauty of these lands Behn allows them to fall into the same trap of the colonialists who taint the land through their violence.
In the very act of writing a narrator who is seduced, Behn indeed attempts to seduce the audience; for the white female narrator acts as a familiar voice for her contemporaries. Oroonoko is concerned in many ways with seduction; some of this being innocent and enticing, and some of it being dangerous and misleading. For the most part, innocent and harmless seduction can be found in that which belongs to the non-white characters in the book, whilst the white characters practice deceptive and self-serving seduction. It is these modes of seduction that Behn uses as a means by which to raise contention against the gender issues and colonialist practices of her time.